Jeri, 74, and Tamara, 50, pose in front of a piece of the camp's mural.
Jeri, 74, and Tamara, 50, pose in front of a piece of the camp’s mural.

Lynne Katzmann came back from Burning Man with a lot of desert dirt.

“The dust is still floating around my house,” the CEO and president of Bloomfield, NJ-based Juniper Communities, told McKnight’s Senior Living two days after returning from the 40-year-old annual festival, which was held Aug. 28 to Sept. 5 in a Nevada dry lake basin.

Cindy Longfellow, the company’s vice president of business development, sales and marketing, brought back memories of incredible and ubiquitous art installations as well as an appreciation for the vastness of the outdoor setting, which is 10 miles across and host to tens of thousands of people.

Most importantly, however, Katzmann and Longfellow left Burning Man with a conviction that the celebration of individuality, sharing and “open-heartedness” that defines the event is applicable — and necessary — in senior living.

Research has shown a relationship between loneliness and health issues in older adults and that “good social relationships are key to a good life,” Katzmann said. “We’re not talking about emails and texts. We’re talking about people being with other people, stimulating one’s brain, stimulating one’s feelings for others, being part of a conversation, being part of the world.”

Senior living communities offer more than food, shelter and assistance with activities of daily living for those who otherwise might be living in isolation at home, she added. “It’s social connectedness. We’re a community of like-minded people at the same point in life coming together, and that’s the connection [with Burning Man].”

Katzmann said that her desire to “write a new story of aging in America” by attending Burning Man — a vision she first broadly vocalized at the 2015 National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care fall conference — was met “beyond my wildest hopes.”

“We had 17 or 18 people in our camp. They ranged in age from their 20s to their 80s,” she said. Juniper’s so-called theme camp was named Aging Insurrection: Joining the Generations 2016, and it partnered with another theme camp, Enchanted Charcuterie, which had about 60 members. “We joined the generations just within our group,” Katzmann said.

“It was a small group, given that I invited the entire industry to participate,” she continued, laughing. “However, it was a large first-year group, and I think we paved the way for others in the future.”

The Nevada environment was harsh, Katzmann said, with the aforementioned playa dust, temperature swings of 30 to 40 degrees, and no fresh water or electricity. “It’s not for the faint of heart or body,” she said. “But the social connectedness, the values, the culture that is created amidst this very tough environment is so strong, so vibrant and, to me, so compelling. …It’s a very unusual and compelling experience that will stay with me for my life.”

The 2016 festival probably won’t be the last for at least some of the members of Juniper’s group, and others may join in next time, Katzmann and Longfellow said, adding that this year’s “burners” will compare notes to determine what they would do differently in the future. Katzmann praised Longfellow’s extensive efforts in preparing for the inaugural trip.

Regardless of future plans, they said, back at Juniper communities, they will be keeping alive some lessons learned at this year’s Burning Man, where an intergenerational coloring party they had organized morphed into a larger mural-making project and more than 200 people visited the camp to share their thoughts on aging-related topics on ribbons subsequently tied to the camp’s “wisdom hut” fence.

Operators across the industry already are undertaking activities to foster social connectedness, Longfellow said, “but perhaps we need to rethink how we’re doing that. What we’ve learned from Burning Man fits squarely with much of our programming at Juniper and yet I think also showed us ways in which we need to perhaps rethink and re-energize what we do.”

For instance, Katzmann said, Juniper communities in the future might hang blank canvases and invite all visitors to express themselves via painting, regardless of their artistic talents.

“It’s bringing people together in different ways and allowing them to interact and to engage not just in social ways but according to the six dimensions of wellness [physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, environmental and social],” she said. Without the dust.

| Read what Katzmann and Longfellow said about Burning Man before their trip. |